The Good Samaritans

Each year, we are blessed to receive many people coming to Koh Tao to assist on our marine conservation program from all ages, countries, and demographics. Yet, we are always surprised at how little those involved in the rest of the diving industry actually do to protect the environment, and the same goes for society as a whole. Is there something unique about these people who come to dedicate weeks or months of their lives to helping the sea? What could it be about their personalities, life history, or character that makes them put the wellbeing of others, or the environment, over their pursuit of other things. Or, more importantly in terms of changing the future; why do so many people not get involved in humanitarian or environmental projects. How is it that they can overlook the suffering of other humans, animals, or entire ecosystems and do nothing?

For the most part, it is not because they lack empathy or don’t care. Indeed most people can see problems, and often complain about them. But why does that not lead to action?

In 1973, two researchers from Princeton University conducted an experiment based on the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. The goal was to test whether a person’s character, or the situation they are in is more important to determining whether they help a person in need. They gathered a group of seminary students (those training to be priests) and gave them all a survey on why they had wanted to join the seminary and dedicate their lives to religion. Next, they had half the students individually prepare to give a speech on jobs at the seminary, and the other half to prepare a speech on the parable of the Good Samaritan (to prime them into a helping mind-set). Next, each student was told to go to another building to give the speech (one by one, and unaccompanied). But, some were told they were already late, and others were told they still had a few minutes but should start heading over anyways.

To get to the other building, the students had to walk through an alley, and in that alley the researchers had set-up their experiment. Each student had to pass by a man that was obviously sick or drunk, slumped over, head down, eyes closed, and groaning. Then they secretly watched to see what each student would do.

So now they have three variables in their experiment; (1) did they join the seminary for personal spiritual fulfillment or to help others, (2) had they prepared a talk about being a Good Samaritan or about doing mundane jobs around the seminary, and (3) were they in a hurry or did they have extra time? Before you read on, take a guess about which of the factors played the biggest role in determining if the person stopped to help to sick man, or just walked over/past him.

If you guessed it was those who already had a character of helping others, from the survey, then sadly you would be wrong. In fact there was no difference in the first variable, indicating that character had little to do with whether the person stopped to help. So then it must be what was on their mind at the time, and those primed with preparing a talk on the Good Samaritan must have helped more often? If you thought this, then unfortunately you would also be wrong, again there was little difference between these groups. The only factor that made any significant difference was whether the person had been told they were late or not.

In all, 40% of the participants stopped to help the man, which is actually surprisingly high compared to others studies about people willingness to help or intervene in such circumstances. However, of the group that was told they were late, only 10% stopped to help, while 63% of the group that had extra time stopped to help.

How often can we all remember a time when we witnessed some problem or a person in need and overlooked it? Did we tell ourselves we are too busy, don’t have the time, or think its ok because somebody else will come along soon? Surely each one of us can remember a time such as this.

Unfortunately, in today’s society it is all too easy to get wrapped up in the fast pace of life and suddenly find we don’t have the time to do things for ourselves, let alone others. But honestly what can be more important than making a difference for humanity and the environment? Isn’t all life on this planet here to evolve and thrive? That is not a personal goal, but one that involves all of the life on the planet moving forward together. Nobody is going to remember what kind of car you drove, how much money you made, or how big your house was. What is remembered, what is felt, and what is passed on are the ways you positively impact the people and environment around you. By helping another person you are infecting them with a bit of yourself, which they will pass on to others they meet. By helping the environment you are benefiting all of the life around you, and in many ways those far away in distance or time.

So then we return to the question of what is it that makes the participants in our marine conservation program unique compared with the hundreds of thousands of other divers coming to the region each year? Maybe it is that they understand the true value of their time on this planet.

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